Now, this part of the story is true. If you lived in Valdosta then, you know it’s true because there’s no way you’d forget it if you lived here.
It was the Christmas Eve that the lights went out in Valdosta, Ga.
Yeah, like I said, plenty of you remember that. And if you don’t remember it, well, that means you didn’t live here then. But it’s true and if you don’t believe me here, just ask someone who did live here.
On Christmas Eve 1995, someone vandalized an electrical generator. Well, it was more like they blew it up. Knocked out all the power in Valdosta and large portions of Lowndes County.
When I say it knocked out the power, we’re not talking lights flickering out in a subdivision here or there. We’re talking no lights, no where. Nothing. No house lights. No Christmas lights. No microwaves. No electric heat. No TV. No recordings of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” unless you had a battery-powered radio. No power to run the refrigerators and keep all that Christmas food chilled. No power for electric stoves to cook all them Christmas birds.
And it was everywhere. Street lights went dark. Traffic lights stopped working. Valdosta was as dark as the night the Savior was born. Just fires in fireplaces and stars in the sky.
Now, some folks will tell you that was their worst Christmas Eve ever. Some will tell you it was one of their best.
With the TVs off, some families gathered round candlelight and fireplaces. Gathered by darkened Christmas trees, they shared stories of holidays past. Maybe the radio played in the background, some old Christmas carols, everyone hushing to hear the latest news of why the lights were out.
Now, wise men and women stayed indoors that night, but some had no choice. They left their families to help their communities. Power company employees went to work. Police worked the scene of the crime. Every officer on the force was called into work that Christmas Eve. Police officers, firefighters, rescue personnel and volunteers manned intersections. They stood with flashlights marking intersections to keep folks from wrecking into one another.
Though The Valdosta Daily Times had already gone to press because of the early Christmas Eve deadline, a newspaper reporter or two drove around gathering information in advance for the Dec. 26 paper. Power was restored within a couple hours for most folks. Some others had their electric up and running throughout the night or come Christmas morning. Still others had no power until late Christmas Day. And some folks didn’t get power back for a few days.
You go back and look up stories in The Valdosta Daily Times from that last week in 1995, and you can read all about it.
Now, when a blackout hits thousands of people on a night as memorable as Christmas Eve that means that everyone has a story from that night. That means there are thousands of stories, based on thousands of memories, so many stories it’s hard to imagine them all. There’s just too many of them, too many folks affected by that night, so who’s to say what memories are right and what memories are wrong, what stories are the absolute truth and what stories from that night are just the stuff of legend.
This is one story from that night. Just one small tale about a man trying to get home for Christmas, about a father trying to bring his daughter a Christmas present for Christmas Eve.
Now, most folks will likely recall, the lights didn’t go out way into the night when children were already snug in bed dreaming of Santa Claus. They went out early in the darkened evening when people were in church services, when stores were preparing to close their doors, when the desperate last-minute shoppers rush through the emptying aisles, frantic for that ever elusive, one last gift.
That’s where we find this man, we’ll call him George, running up and down a toy aisle on Christmas Eve 1995.
He’d been out of town on work. He wasn’t even supposed to be back for Christmas. It had been that kind of assignment. That kind of job. But one thing had led to another in the days leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve morning, George found himself speeding south on I-75 for Valdosta and home. A Christmas surprise. His family didn’t know George was coming home.
Though he and his wife, as well as Santa Claus, had plenty of gifts for their 5-year-old daughter, Susie, George felt he should walk through the door with a present for his little girl to make the surprise of his return complete. But he’d spent the day hurrying so fast to get back that he didn’t stop to shop until reaching Valdosta, just as the stores were fixing to close.
Finally, he found what seemed to a frenzied man the perfect doll for a little girl. George rushed to the check-out. He tapped his foot waiting in line. The store’s intercom boomed the countdown to the store’s lockdown.
Halfway through one such announcement, the voice clicked off. The store went dark. Emergency lights blazed on. Yet, everything was quiet. You don’t realize how much noise all that electric stuff makes, humming and droning, until it all shuts off. Then, came the confused voices.
One voice rose above the rest. A store clerk. No electricity; no cash registers. No cash registers; no purchases. No purchases; the store is closed. Merry Christmas!
George walked out with other empty-handed customers. He walked out to a dark parking lot. No lights anywhere as far as the eye could see. It took George some time, but he found his car, glad to see that at least the interior lights still worked. Them and his headlight.
Driving home, he noticed no lights anywhere. He nearly collided with a car at one intersection. He’d lived his whole life in Valdosta, but George could barely see his way home. The entire city didn’t look different in the dark. Instead, it was like the whole town vanished but you could still run into something if you weren’t careful.
George’s mood felt as dark as the city. He would walk into his house without a present for Susie. It seemed to spoil the whole surprise. And with the lights out, well, that just took the whole Christmas fruitcake.
Policemen and firemen started appearing at intersections with flashlights. They seemed like bright lights in the dark directing George home.
But George came to one particular darkened intersection, which had a reputation as a dangerous spot in the best of times. No officer had yet arrived. So, George stopped, pulled his flashlight from the glove compartment and directed traffic until a policeman spelled him a couple hours later. From there, George drove home. He pulled up to his darkened house. No flashing Christmas lights. No glowing Santas or manger scenes. No twinkle on the tinsel. No toy for Susie. Just him. Ho, ho, hum.
He unlocked the door and stepped into the house. Screams filled George’s ears. His wife and Susie. They didn’t know he was coming home. Not only hadn’t he called, but now he hadn’t knocked first either. He realized he had burst in on them in a darkened house. An unexpected man, by no means Santa Claus, but a quick word from George and his wife and Susie’s screams turned to cheers of welcome.
Susie hugged George, squeezed his neck tight. Christmas or not, she’d been scared by the dark, scared more because her daddy wasn’t home.
As he reassured Susie that everything would be all right and that, yes, he was home for Christmas, the house’s lights flickered on, the Christmas tree sparkled, the Christmas lights gleamed.
Looking at all of the Christmas decorations, Susie beamed even brighter at George.
“Daddy, you brought the best present of all,” the 5-year-old said. “You brought back Christmas!”
Now, all these many years later and with Susie all grown, she still recalls that night as the night George brought the lights and magic of Christmas home. And the night the lights went out in Valdosta was George and his family’s best Christmas Eve ever.
Dean Poling is The Valdosta Daily Times assistant managing editor.